The Scottish drink a shit-ton of brew and have some phenomenal breweries. But the truth is, the land of St. Andrew simply isn’t seen as a contender in the “Which Country Produces the Best Beer” debate. To me, that’s unfair. Edinburgh was once one of the premier brewing cities on Earth. The Scotch Ale, particularly the Wee Heavy version, is considered a prestige style (in line with Russian Imperial Stouts and Double IPAs). Mild, malty Scottish Ales are amongst the most sessiony of session beers. The herbed Gruit style is starting to see some traction in the American brewing industry. And the “Shilling Designation” (which used to mean charging lower or higher prices depending on the alcohol content and quality of the brew) has made a bit of a comeback of late (note the Odell and Columbus 90 Shilling Ales in the US).
So why isn’t Scotland seen as a top brew-country? For starters, no country on Earth is more tied to a single alcoholic beverage as Scotland is to Scotch. Sure, other beer drinking countries like the US, Belgium, Ireland, and Germany also have their native booze (Bourbon, Jenever, Whiskey, and Schnapps respectively), but those liquors don’t have the same mythical stranglehold over the perception of their respective countries that Scotch does over Scotland. Even the name is synonymous with the people. Imagine if the Germans drank “Deutsch” or the Irish drank “Erin”. Scotland can never escape from the shadow of its most famous export, and frankly, why would it want to? A glass of single-malt with a couple of ice cubes to tame the fire is pretty much the perfect cocktail. It’s also interesting that the other countries I mentioned are at lower latitudes. While countries like Russia and Scotland certainly drink and produce their fair share of beer, they’re better known for hard liquors (vodka and Scotch). Could it be because their northern latitudes and colder climates make a warming glass of booze more desirable than a frosty, frothy brew? I have no idea. There are so many holes in that theory (Exhibit A: Canada), that it’s probably not worth mentioning again. In fact, just forget I wrote it.
Another reason Scotland is seen as a second-tier brewing nation is because they simply don’t have that many commercial breweries. Wikipedia only lists 40 recognized brands in Scotland. Compare that to the 125 in Belgium, 400 in England, and 1,300 in Germany. Granted, that number doesn’t include all of the Scottish microbreweries, so it’s probably lower than it should be, but they’re still well behind other nations in ale production.
Finally, Scotland is in the shadow of its two more beer-centric neighbors, Ireland and England (we’re ignoring Wales because it’s Wales). While England practically invented the modern styles of ale including brown ales (think Newcastle), bitters (think Fullers ESB), and IPAs (think Bass), Ireland’s proclivity for stouts made Guinness a household name. Scotland, meanwhile, never really found a niche and happily produced a variety of great beers with no real style to speak of (other than a lack of hoppiness which is a complete misconception we won’t get into here). The point is, when England and Ireland are your next door neighbors, it’s hard to make a name for yourself in the beer world.
Regardless of why they’re not mentioned in the same breath as some other countries, Scotland produces some truly epic brews. It’s worth stepping out of your Belgian or American craft-brewed comfort zone once in awhile and sampling the sweet nectar produced by our kilted friends. They may not be as famous as the breweries in other parts of the world, but I promise you…they know what they’re doing. Witness the Harviestoun Old Engine Oil.
Harviestoun was founded in 1985 in an old stone barn by a highly respected brewer named Ken Brooker. It was bought out in 2006 by Caledonian Brewery, but when they were in turn bought out by Scottish & Newcastle, who in turn was bought out by Heineken and Carlsberg, Harviestoun was dropped from the roster for lack of interest. This is fitting since Heineken and Carlsberg make some of the shittiest beer on Earth and Harviestoun makes some of the most well-crafted beers you’ll ever taste. I also like that the “chain” of buyouts (Harviestoun to Caledonian to Newcastle to Heineken) decreased exponentially in terms of quality of offerings at each step. Heineken’s loss is our gain as the independent Harviestoun continues to churn out award-winning brews. They’re best known for their Bitter & Twisted ale and Schiehallion lager and for a new line of experimental brews called Ola Dubh which involves aging strong, dark ales in Highland Park Scotch casks (we’ll do a tasting note on one eventually…in a nutshell, they’re fucking delicious). But ask most Americans to name a Harviestoun beer, and they’ll probably say three words: Old Engine Oil.
For my tasting note, I had a 330ml bottle of the brew which I emptied into a shaker glass with a very hard pour. The beer was as black as expected and the head was the color of milky coffee. The head had good retention with a tight structure. The lacing was a bit wispier than I would have thought, but still substantial.
The nose smelled of roasted malts with a touch of chocolate. Very little bitterness to be found, either from hops or alcohol (6% ABV on this baby). The aroma was very sweet and subtle…getting all of the notes from this complex brew proved beyond my capabilities, but my wife hit on some burnt sugar and toffee.
The taste was excellent…mild sweetness on top followed by a fair amount of bitterness in the aftertaste…like biting into very dark chocolate. What I liked most is that no flavor dominated the beer. This is a carefully calibrated brew…with lots of competing flavors all staying in balance with one another. The toffee and caramel my wife noticed in the nose are more prevalent in the taste, but again, they don’t drown out the bitterness or roasted flavors.
The mouthfeel is where I felt a twinge of disappointment. The name of the beer is simply a misnomer. Ken Brooker used to work as a prototype designer for Ford and when he first produced the Old Engine Oil, the color and viscosity of the brew reminded him of…well…old engine oil. The color is as black as any oil, but I’ve had far more viscous beers than this. Try an Oskar Blues Ten Fidy and you won’t even think it’s the same species as the Harviestoun. In truth, if the beer were called anything else, I would say the mouthfeel was appropriate to the style, but because I was expecting a gummy, chewy brew as thick as cough syrup, I think I had a little cognitive dissonance. That’s probably on me, but naming a brew is important…and this one had the mouthfeel of a cola rather than oil.
As for drinkability…because the beer was thinner and lighter than I expected, the drinkability actually improved quite a bit. This is a bit too strong to be called a session beer, but it’s damn close. I could easily polish off half a dozen of these in a night. The subtle but rich flavors don’t overwhelm you and the beer improves noticeably as it warms.
Overall, the Harviestoun Old Engine Oil gets 3.5 Hops from me. It’s an excellent brew that does Scotland proud. Seek out a bottle when you can and you’ll quickly realize that the Scottish can hold their own against anyone when it comes to crafting a solid beer.